Beauty and the Bees

Why do we need bees? Make that why don’t we? They’re essential to a healthy environment—and no, most of them don’t sting.


With landscapes in bloom across the U.S., we thought it was high time to remind ourselves of why these tiny pollinators have such a mighty impact on our food supplies and landscapes, and what we can all do to help them thrive. We checked in with Sarina Jepsen, Director of the Endangered Species Program at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation—our Philanthropy Cheek Shades partners, based in Portland, Oregon—for the scoop on the secret life of bees and our role in protecting them.

Most people are afraid of bees—or at least they’re bee-avoidant. What do we most misunderstand about them?
We often only think about honey bees, or perhaps bumble bees, when we think of bees. Many of us don’t realize how diverse native bees are in the US—there are actually more than 3,600 species! Their diversity can be seen from a minute squash bee to a metallic green striped sweat bee or a giant valley carpenter bee. It is also often misunderstood that most native bees won’t sting you and most are solitary, nesting in the ground or cavities in dead wood or hollow plant stems.

What do we know about bees’ origins and how long they’ve shared our planet?
The oldest bee fossil is about 100 million years old!

Xerces Society's Sarah Jepsen researching pollinators in the field. Photo by Candace Fallon - Xerces Society.

Whoa! Bees have been essential to our environment for a long time. Can you explain why?
More than one third of our crops rely upon insects for pollination—and bees are by far our most important pollinators. Beyond that, many of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that produce essential vitamins and nutrients (like vitamin C, calcium, and folic acid) come from plants that rely upon bees for pollination. So many of the flowering plants within our native ecosystems also rely upon bees, and many of those plants produce fruits that feed birds and other wildlife. So if we continue to see declines in wild bees as well as managed honey bees, it will affect many other species, as well as our own food security.

What are their biggest threats?
Although there is much more to be learned, the threats to wild bumble bee populations in North America are thought to be a combination of factors that may act synergistically, such as pathogen infection, exposure to pesticides, climate change and habitat loss. According to one recent review of the science, current rates of decline may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world's insect species over the next few decades.

That’s a lot! In the US, what are some of the hardest hit areas?
A really neat study by Insu Koh came out a few years ago in which the authors identified areas in the United States where there is a high need for wild bee pollination, yet a reduced supply of these bees. There were several areas, such as California’s Central Valley, and many parts of the Upper Midwest, that emerged from this study where areas with downward trends in wild bee abundance could have really significant impacts on pollinator-dependent crops.

Sweat Bee on Asclepias tuberosa; Carpenter bee on Cleveland Sage. Photo by Sarah Foltz Jordan and Cameron Newell.

What does Xerces do to protect and conserve bees?
We work with farmers, land managers, and communities to restore habitat for bees, as well as to improve the way this habitat is managed. Our community science program Bumble Bee Watch enlists volunteers to collect information that has allowed us to track bumble bees and better understand which species are most at risk of extinction, and which ones generally have stable populations. Additionally, we are working with dozens of communities throughout the U.S. to change policies to protect bees from some of the worst pesticides.

What are some tangible outcomes of your work—and how have Chantecaille’s donations helped?
Over the last decade, we have worked with farmers to restore more than one million acres of pollinator habitat in the U.S. Our work with more than 35 cities and towns has also led to policies that reduce the use of the most bee-toxic insecticides. Through Bumble Bee Watch, more than 25,000 records have been submitted, allowing us to understand where at-risk species occur, and to further determine which species are most in danger of extinction. Supporters like Chantecaille are among our most valuable, since this kind of general support allows us to grow and adapt to achieve our mission.

"If you have access to dirt, you can plant native, bee-friendly wildflowers and shrubs to provide habitat for bees."

How did you personally get into bee and pollinator conservation?
I’ve always been interested in the world of insects. When I was younger, I discovered a feral honey bee hive in some wooden boxes in my parents’ shed, and my dad and I made a smoker to harvest honey. I became fascinated by those honey bees, built a top bar hive, and began to keep them and catch swarms. I also started to notice other bees. I eventually pursued a master’s degree in Entomology at U.C. Davis, which led me to my position at the Xerces Society in 2006. Once there, I became interested in the conservation status and extinction risk of the native, wild bees in the US.

Rusty patched bumble bee

What do you love most about bees?
I love that there are different kinds of bees everywhere I go, and there are so many things that still no one knows about most species of native bees. Cuckoo bumble bees—which can kill or subdue the queen bumble bee of their host species, invade the colony, and use the workers to rear their own young—are fascinating, and there are several species of cuckoo bumble bees that appear to be highly endangered.

Do you have a favorite species?
I would have to say the rusty patched bumble bee. It’s a beautiful bee, with a reddish orange patch on its abdomen. Over a decade ago, I worked with several colleagues to develop an Endangered Species Act petition to protect this species. In 2017, it became the first wild bee in the continental U.S. to be protected as an endangered species.

What can average citizens do to protect bees in their area?
There are so many things that people can do. If you have access to dirt, you can plant native, bee-friendly wildflowers and shrubs to provide habitat for bees. You can participate in community science programs like Bumble Bee Watch to help conservation organizations better understand these native bees. Don’t use pesticides, and consider supporting organic or Bee Better Certified food and other products that support bee-friendly practices. Consider how elected officials value bees when you vote.

And you can take our Pollinator Protection Pledge, which is part of the Xerces Society’s Bring Back the Pollinators campaign, based on four simple principles: Grow pollinator-friendly flowers, provide nest sites, avoid pesticides, and spread the word.

 

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